Today United Breaks Trust With Customers Who Bought Lifetime Club Memberships

Delta implemented a rule January 1 that access to their Sky Clubs is limited to passengers flying the airline or its designated partners the same day. It used to be the benefit of a ‘real’ club membership versus access through American Express Platinum was the ability to use the Delta lounge even when not flying Delta. Now there’s no such advantage.

New Club Access Rules Go Into Effect Today for United and American

Since American and United copy Delta for all the wrong things, both of those airlines implement this same rule today. Clubs used to be for members. Now instead of memberships you can think of what you’re buying as a year’s subscription for an add-on service with your flights.

One thing I have to give Delta credit for: they continue to honor access for lifetime club members, who purchased the ability to use Delta clubs whenever they’re at the airport. They never attempted to renege on the commitment.

American initially said that even lifetime members who purchased club membership years ago would have the terms changed on them (no refunds!). However they backtracked and lifetime American Airlines Admirals Club members can continue to use the clubs even when flying another airline.

United Sold Lifetime Club Memberships, Changes The Terms of Those Memberships

United has held firm that they can take a customer’s money for a lifetime service and change the terms (the “our fingers were crossed” rule). Unlike Delta and American, people who purchased lifetime United Club memberships cannot continue to use United Clubs unless they’re flying United or designated partners same day.

Several readers have asked me whether there’s any chance that United would blink – like American did – before the policy went into effect. I reached out to United and they explained that, no, their fingers were crossed the new rules will apply even to people who bought their memberships years ago. A spokesperson shares,

We continue to make investments to improve the overall travel experience for our customers and we’re considering all aspects of their journey, including their United Club experience. United Club customers – all members (annual and Lifetime) and their guests, as well as one-time pass holders – will need a same-day boarding pass for travel on United, Star Alliance or a contracted partner for entry into all United Club locations. This change should help alleviate the capacity concerns in our spaces, allowing for more available seating and easier access to amenities like beverages and light snacks, agent assistance and power outlets – all of which will help improve the customer’s experience.

Reneging on Commitment to Lifetime Club Members Provides Easier Access to These Snacks

I’m willing to take bets – and give odds – that this change will not alleviate crowding in United Clubs at peak times. Indeed, the problem in Newark is that the airline simply took away their primary club to give it to international business class passengers (Polaris lounge) and hasn’t replaced it.

However the crowding issue is a non sequitur in any case because there’s no world in which they can claim the problem of crowding is due to lifetime United Club members accessing lounges when not flying United. And even if it was the cause, it would have been a mistake on United’s part to offer these memberships and therefore the responsibility of United to make good on them.

United Has a Track Record of Reneging on Lifetime Commitments

United, more than any other airline, has taken the position that they can change the rules on lifetime programs whenever they wish and even when they explicitly say they will not do so. That’s a familiar refrain for Silver Wings members and for lifetime MileagePlus elites who were promised annual upgrades.

United explained to a judge that they can change the lifetime program any time they wish, indeed that United’s regular customers should know better than to trust lifetime promises.

Judge Hamilton: To understand the difference between lifetime and fingers crossed? That lifetime doesn’t mean lifetime?

United: That lifetime means lifetime unless…

Judge Wood: Unless we change our mind.

Judge Hamilton: Unless we change our mind.

United: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the case.

The judge in the case concluded for United but you can tell he was shaking his head at the airline’s audacity when he did it.

United’s defense here is that the airline’s very best customers—its Million Mile Flyers—should have known better than to believe United’s promise of “lifetime” benefits. This defense amounts to a confession of consumer fraud. United could not—honestly and legally—promise “lifetime” benefits while reserving the right to cancel its promise at any time and for any reason.

Telling Lifetime Club Members “Our Fingers Were Crossed” Undermines Trust for Everyone

To me United’s decision to change the rules for something customers purchased after the fact undermines CEO Oscar Munoz’s credibility to claims that the airline is motivated by a desire to do the right thing for customers. It all come down to trust. But then what do you think their elimination of award charts means?

And the decision to blame lifetime club members for crowding simply strains the airline’s credibility even further.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Who wants to sit in one of those “clubs” anyway. I’d rather walk around the airport than eat high calorie junk food and sit in what looks like a nice homeless shelter. I remember last year walking into a Delta Skyclub in ATL B that I’m sure is real nice empty but it was packed and trashed. I just decided to skip the club and walked around the airport burning calories instead of eating calories.

  2. Once again, unfortunately, someone has to interject politics into a non political discussion. Jeez, don’t you get worn out doing that?

    Was their language in UA’s “contract” that let them out of their commitment?

  3. Makes perfect sense to me!
    Years ago they needed the business now they don’t so it’s F you folks
    as they shoot @ Fish (customers)in a barrel
    Without the monopoly of all the mergers I doubt we would have seen the outrageous dynamic award pricing ,a damaged ff program, hostile violent customer service in airports, planes etc
    United Rising in the friendly skies? hah!
    The next Trump Air?
    As much as I dislike Southwest I find myself flying them along with Alaska and Jet Blue
    United American & Delta can go Park in the desert and bake their jets for life in the sun for all I care
    I’ll even donate the mothballs as many as they need
    The good old days are long over and I’m truly fortunate to have experienced United while it was a solid airline with decent customer service impressive dining and warm caring happy welcoming customer service and yes back when a highly rewarding excellent world class FF program
    I pity the new generation however perhaps they will have nothing to compare to it being most of the airlines suck big time now and there is power in that like never before with monkey see monkey do and brain dead greedy leadership

  4. TDS aside I don’t see how this is much different than changing access with cards like the AA Citi Exec cards Midway through the year.

  5. What’s amazing is that even the much-hated cellular carriers are better than this with their unlimited data pitch. At least technically it’s true that you can use as much data as you want – just at slower speeds.

    This is a pretty fundamental change to the lifetime benefit. It’s already understood that this is for the lifetime of the MileagePlus program – not the recipient.

    Can they eventually require that lifetime members have to pay a usage fee? Or a concessions fee? Or a liquor tax fee? To what extent is UA able to adjust the program before it’s deemed material enough to succeed in court? As Gary alluded to, if UA shifts 99% of their United Clubs to Polaris Lounges, and restricts access to Polaris lounges to only annual pass holders, is UA still in the clear???

  6. What I’m really sad about today is that it marks the loss of access to United Clubs via Amtrak status without a same-day *A BP…

  7. @Jon: No, it isn’t for the lifetime of the MP program, it is for my lifetime. In 1973, long before there was a MileagePlus program, I bought a lifetime membership for me and my spouse in the Red Carpet Club, which morphed its name to the United Club. My first wife died in 1993, and United stated that her spousal membership terminated when she died — as they declined to offer a membership to my second wife.

    In practice, this seems to me to be a small issue. I tend to use the United Club only when I fly United. I cannot get to the clubs at all if I am not flying, as they are usually on the other side of security (except at SIN, where security is at the gate). I fly exclusively in business or better when traveling internationally, even though it is my own money (since 11+ hours of torture SCL-MIA on AA in steerage). And my Amex Plat gets me into DL’s SkyClubs when I fly DL domestically.

    Oh, well — I think I got my $250 fee out of it by now.

  8. Even though I still fly United fairly often, when I read Gary’s column today, I remembered many questionable things United Airlines did during and since its Continental Airlines merger.

    I also remember the court comment Gary quoted concerning the “fingers crossed” ruling when the word “lifetime” was part of a defaulted contract with United.

    There has been a series of defaults with United since that merger. Clearly, a United Airlines contract that includes the word “lifetime” is a contract that United can cancel or change at its whim.

    There are lots of different airlines available. Why get lured in only to later be cheated with false “lifetime” promises that are unenforcible?

  9. Saying delta never attempted to reneg is incorrect. The rules they sent out initially did not grandfather lifetime members under the old rules. It was only after months of complaining and threats of lawsuits that they backed down. I’d be surprised if other airlines don’t face the same legal challenges, trying to unilaterally modify a purchase agreement years after its execution. I paid for access for life (under the initial terms I didn’t even need to be flying that day), I expect those terms to be honored. It’s a different story if you’re talking about a new membership or renewal, vs an existing term.

  10. I was in the Admirals Club at DFW-D last Friday evening and it was a disaster. The Mac and Cheese ‘bar’ was a mess: Spoon handles too messy to touch, the area around the toppings was a mess and there was dried cheese sauce dripped on the side of the serving pot. The Mac and Cheese was empty for about 20 minutes and when the refill finally came, it was lukewarm. The bar was unattended for over 15 minutes while guests queued up for a drink. Seems like nobody is minding the store.

  11. I have said this to anyone who will listen and you’re exactly right. “I’m willing to take bets – and give odds – that this change will not alleviate crowding in United Clubs at peak times. Indeed, the problem in Newark is that the airline simply took away their primary club to give it to international business class passengers (Polaris lounge) and hasn’t replaced it.”

    20 year Club Member and Million Mile Sucker on United/Continental

  12. Its a shame that the judge ruled for united. This is nothing more than fraud on united’s part. Don’t see why anyone should ever trust them.

  13. Just in case any reader was around during the United/Continental merger, here is a screenshot of one of the reneged “lifetime benefits” that was discussed by the judges as another lifetime promise that United did not mean even though it is in writing.

    United customers who had flown at least one million miles on United, got two annual regional upgrades each year for life. But, with the merger,
    this “lifetime” benefit was taken away.

    It seems pretty silly for the judges to let United off the hook for this written “lifetime” promise that was in writing.

    This is another case brought against United that had the “fingers crossed” ruling as United didn’t mean what they had in writing – totally wacko

    Here is the screenshot that supposedly answers customer questions about the merger of the two airlines:

    “As a Million Miler, will I continue to receive 2 Regional Upgrades for life?

    Yes. We are committed to providing Million Mile Flyers, our most loyal members, with lifetime benefits in recognition of their travels on United. Among those benefits are two Regional Upgrades, awarded annually to the member.”

  14. The only thing that will solve capacity problems in the United Clubs is to make them bigger. Much bigger. Anything else is lipstick on a pig.

  15. Sad to see United CEO Oscar Munoz condone this type of behavior and what kind of message it send to the United organization and their culture. Will be interesting to see if investors are rattled by the lack of credibility

  16. I was a United Premier Executive/Premier for a straight decade plus in the 1990s. After 9/11, their customer service and attitudes of their public-facing staff got so bad, that I didn’t fly them for years. Now, however, I live in a UA hub city, where I am again mostly captive and, well, we all know the definition of crazy…..

    P.S. I fly Southwest whenever I can, if you want an indication of how low an opinion I have of United.

  17. The airlines are the same as many of the companies each of you work for. They will say and do anything for the benefit of themselves and not their customers. My loyalty in business usually goes to smaller family owned businesses with good ethics.We all reap what we sow. I will tell you that most of the world class companies that exceed their customers expectations are in private hands and not public companies. I have no loyalty to any airlines and use and abuse them as much as they abuse me with their self serving interests.

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